Paper Sculpture Techniques

We have seen sculptural artworks made from all kinds of materials. From industrial substances to non-tangible digital sculptures, artists who truly embrace sculpture seek to master their medium. But, what about art made from paper? Paper sculpting requires immense focus and a thorough understanding of the medium in all its states. Below, we will dive into the world of paper sculpture through paper statues and paper artists whose incredible skills will have you in awe of what can be achieved with paper alone!

Understanding the Art of Paper Sculpture

Many critics are apprehensive about art made from paper, however, as we edge into the mid-21st century, many artists are looking to unconventional mediums that can still, ironically, hold weight across concept, design, form, and aesthetics. What is paper art? and how does it manifest in sculpture? The art of sculpting paper relies on the use of precise techniques and delicate handling of paper to construct a final sculpture that can exist in a three-dimensional form. One may instantly recognize the Japanese art of origami, or paper folding, as a form of paper sculpture crafted traditionally from a single piece of paper. Paper sculpture on the other hand refers to sculptures crafted from multiple types of paper and certainly includes more than one sheet of paper. Paper sculptures can be produced from hand-made paper processes or store-bought, ready-made sheets of paper.

Paper SculptingCosmic Shift Detail (2015) by Jen Stark; Ambrown1989, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

To understand sculptural art made from paper, it is useful to grasp the trajectory of paper as it has been used in the visual arts. Since the 2nd century CE, paper processing techniques had emerged in China and spread across the world to parts of Europe such that artists could produce two-dimensional works on paper. Form was at the center of determining the function of paper and as such, the production of paper as a flat material dictated the development of art styles in drawing, painting, and calligraphy. In Japan, around the 17th century, the art of paper folding known as origami emerged and added a new dimension to the potential of paper in the visual arts. You may also wonder, “Why is paper sculpture important today?”

Paper sculpture is a useful art form that encourages dexterity development and fine-tunes motor skills in young children. Since the invention of paper, many artists have been able to realize significant concepts in a visual format through calligraphy, drawing, printing, design, and watercolor painting.

While origami is broadly considered a craft or hobby, many incorporate the methods of paper folding to create stunning and magnificent paper sculptures that mimic the visual qualities of sculptures created using traditional materials such as plaster or metal.

Learning and mastering the art of paper sculpture takes time and involves many trials and errors to hone one’s unique technical processes. Popular techniques and processes employed in paper sculpture vary from artist to artist and may include paper sculpting techniques such as origami, fringing, pleating, interlocking, curling, embossing, and scoring to enhance your artwork. Beyond traditional paper sculpting techniques such as origami, one can also explore techniques such as Momigami, a Japanese method employed to knead paper, as well as Korean paper felting, known as Joomchi.

Light Sculptures (n.d) by Isamu Noguchi; Torstenkunz-Germany, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Contemporary paper artists who have added new visual dimensions to the art form include figures such as Lauren Clay, Roberto Benavidez, Li Hongbo, Jen Stark, Peter Callesen, and Yulia Brodskaya among the many top paper cut artists. One of the most notable examples of paper busts includes works such as Li Hongbo’s Bust of David (2012), which we will explore further below.

Famous Paper Sculptures – Exploring the Top 10 Most Famous Paper Sculptures

One of the most fascinating aspects of using paper to make art is its versatility. Paper as a medium enables artists to experiment with a wide range of visual aesthetics that can vary from organic and flowing shapes to geometric, angular structures. Artists can also play with different colors and techniques to enhance the visual qualities of a paper sculpture and introduce elements of luminosity and translucency. In addition to the uniqueness of paper sculpture artworks, one can also enjoy the tactile nature of paper, which invites viewers to engage with the sculpture on a sensory level and explore the intricacies of the curves and contours of paper.

To deepen your appreciation of paper sculpture, we have compiled a list of the top 10 most famous paper sculpture artworks that will have you enthralled!

Gear’s Heart (2005) by Haruki Nakamura

Artist Name Haruki Nakamura (1967 – Present)Date2005MediumPaperDimensions (cm)UnavailableWhere It Is HousedUnavailable

Gear’s Heart is one of the most incredible paper sculptures created by Haruki Nakamura in 2005. The famous Japanese artist was introduced to the art of paper sculpture when he was 27, and had since created many intricate paper constructions, which he calls “paper toys”. Gear’s Heart is a mechanical sculpture inspired by traditional origami, which Nakamura uses to construct kinetic works that come alive.

It is fascinating to witness such a fragile medium take shape and move in ways that mimic mechanical structures. Nakamura’s approach to paper sculpture is informed by his passion for paper engineering and bringing delight to people who are often in disbelief of the talents of his paper folding.

One can view Nakamura’s sculpture on his personal WIX website and YouTube channel, Kamikara Haruki.

Bust of David (2012) by Li Hongbo

Artist Name Li Hongbo (1974 – Present)Date2012MediumPaperDimensions (cm)118 x 70 x 60Where It Is HousedEli Klein Gallery, New York City, United States

Famous Contemporary Chinese artist Li Hongbo is one of the most renowned paper sculpture artists who truly extended the potential of paper as a sculptural medium. Hongbo’s experimental approach to creating new forms in paper sculpture demonstrates the influences of classical sculpture through his paper busts, sculpted after the famed Renaissance statue, David (1501-1504) by Michelangelo.

Paper BustsPortrait of Li Hongbo (2014); Lisaekfa, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Hongbo created two detailed paper busts modeled after the original David statue and incorporated techniques from ancient Chinese gourd-making practices to produce layered kinetic sculptures. These famous paper busts unravel themselves in the same way that a slinky would and are not only playful in form but also sensitive to touch, such that one tug will cause the bust to collapse, revealing the many fine layers of paper used to sculpt the bust.

Hongbo’s sculptures are currently housed in collections such as the Wuhan Art Museum, the United Bank of Switzerland, and the Musée du Papier.

Cloud Leopard (2013) by Nahoko Kojima

Artist Name Nahoko Kojima (1981 – Present)Date2013MediumPaperDimensions (cm)UnavailableWhere It Is HousedSaatchi Gallery, London, United Kingdom

Nahoko Kojima is among the most talented paper sculpture artists of all time whose marvelous and intricate installation paper works have received international acclaim. Nahoko Kojima is a famous Japanese paper cut artist who mastered the art of Kirie over many years since her first venture at the age of five. Kojima was inspired by many Contemporary aspects of Tokyo, including fashion trends, and relocated to London in 2005 to develop her knowledge of Western art.

Many of her works have been sold to private collectors and treated as precious sculptures that are one of a kind since the artist never duplicated her works. Cloud Leopard is a famous sculpture by Kojima crafted from a sheet of black paper, which was later suspended for exhibition. The sculpture took Kojima five months to complete and was included in a touring exhibition hosted by Arte&Arte. Kojima had also completed many projects for BVLGARI and included paper sculptures in over 90 stores across Asia.

Other renowned works by Kojima include Washi (2014), Honey (2015), and Human Collection (2018).

Cloud City (2014) by the Makerie Studio and Luke Kirwan

Artist Name The Makerie Studio and Luke Kirwan (n.d.)Date2014MediumPaperDimensions (cm)UnavailableWhere It Is HousedStudio Collection, New York City, United States

This stunning collaborative paper artwork was created by the renowned New York-based studio known as the Makerie Studio in 2014. The Makerie Studio was inspired by the architectural designs and motifs found in Moroccan cultures and buildings and offered a reinterpretation of a fictional Moroccan-themed city.

The paper sculpture was photographed by Luke Kiran and crafted by the studio artists to emphasize themes of weightlessness and ethereality using paper and iridescent paper. Many other fascinating works can be viewed on the studio’s Behance profile, including special projects such as editorial work for Japan Vogue.

These featured a Georgian ruff sculpture modeled against the delicate Georgian fabrics worn by Nadja Bender in 2013.

Magic Circle Variation (2017) by Rogan Brown

Artist Name Rogan Brown (1966 – Present)Date2017MediumHand and laser-cut paperDimensions (cm)80 (d)Where It Is HousedArtist’s collection

This meticulously sculpted paper artwork is one of the finest and most elegant sculptures created by Contemporary English paper sculptor Rogan Brown in 2017. Brown’s series Magic Circle is one of his best-known series that explores the wonders of the human microbiome through an examination of the important bacteria that help us survive daily.

Through the complex laser and hand-cut designs in the paper, Brown highlights the surreal landscape of our human ecosystems that also mimic the designs seen in reef systems. A few other interesting sculptures by Rogan Brown include Fallen Angel Wings (2013), Outbreak (2014), Cut Stem (2014), and Cell Cloud (2015).

Brown is also the recipient of the 2014 Emerging Artist of the Year awarded by the National Open Art competition and has since exhibited internationally.

Ara 331 (2018) by Matthew Shlian

Artist Name Matthew Shlian (1980 – Present)Date2018MediumPaperDimensions (cm)121.9 x 121.9Where It Is HousedDimmitt Contemporary Art, Houston, Texas, United States

Matt Shlian is among the most famous paper sculptors of the 21st century whose intricate geometric paper artworks are engineered with complex hand-folding techniques and digital mapping. Shlian’s designs are inspired by natural forms and motifs found in microscopic organisms and forms such as cell membranes.

Matt Shlian assembles a piece (2016); Carrot patch 33, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Shlian has also collaborated with engineers from the University of Michigan and explored the connections between 3D nanotechnology and Japanese origami. Today, Shlian’s works can be found in the collections of many prominent institutions, including the Art Institute of Chicago with many brand collaborations from Facebook, Sesame Street, and Apple.

Other mesmerizing paper artworks by Shlian include Ara 114 (2012), Ara 314 Such a Thirst I Had (2017), Unholy 124 (2018), and Contour in Ivy Green (2021).

Illuminated Piñata No. 6 (2018) by Roberto Benavidez

Artist Name Roberto Benavidez (1973 – Present)Date2018MediumPaperDimensions (cm)UnavailableWhere It Is HousedArtist’s collection

Roberto Benavidez is perhaps one of the most well-known paper sculpture artists whose quirky and otherworldly animal sculptures draw reference to the famous work of Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. Benavidez’s paper sculptures are created in the style of the piñata form, which unpacks complex discourses around the paper artist’s experience of race, culture, sexuality, humor, beauty, and sin.

Benavidez’s use of paper was driven by their desire to use a more accessible medium that would also enable them to explore layered concepts of identity through the lens of a mixed-race queer creator. Illuminated Piñata No. 6 is part of a series of intricate paper works called the Piñatas of Earthly Delights and was exhibited at the AD&A Museum in Santa Barbara. Benavidez’s Bosch-inspired sculptures were created using thin strips of hand-cut crepe paper while referencing images of selected birds.

Benavidez accentuates the color of each sculpture using ornate embellishments such as serrated fringe and metallic papers.

Problem Attic Series: To Stay Young (2020) by Brian Dettmer

Artist Name Brian Dettmer (1974 – Present)Date2020MediumVintage magazine and acrylic varnishDimensions (cm)19.1 x 13.7 x 0.6Where It Is HousedSeager Gray Gallery, Mill Valley, California, United States

Renowned American paper artist Brian Dettmer creates some of the most bizarre and interesting paper artworks. Dubbed the paper surgeon, Dettmer carves his sculpture from antique books to produce mini dioramas of alternative worlds. Dettmer’s creative process involves an element of destruction to generate a new artwork that changes the relationship that people have towards pieces of literature that are discarded, forgotten, or unused.

Famous Paper SculpturesExcavated (2014) by Brian Dettmer; Brian Dettmer, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Dettmer’s treatment of his medium is multifaceted and exposes the physical inner flesh of books by drawing attention to the layers of paper in a book. Dettmer also employs medical tools to sculpt his books, as if dissecting these publications and maps that once held miscellaneous information. Dettmer’s practice moves one to ponder over what the destruction of literature means and what pieces of literature get destroyed, torn apart, and transformed into abstract sculptures that distort the original intention of a writer.

Other unique paper works by Dettmer include Who Killed Society (2012), Western Civilizations (2016), and Post Landscape (2017).

Flight Sequence (2021) by Richard Sweeney

Artist Name Richard Sweeney (1984 – Present)Date2021MediumWatercolor paper and adhesiveDimensions (cm)175 x 115 x 26Where It Is HousedVictor Felix Gallery, London, United Kingdom

Flight Sequence embodies the nature of Richard Sweeney’s approach to paper sculpture that simultaneously highlights the fragility of the medium as a strength in Sweeney’s practice. Sweeney is an English sculptor and writer whose works have been exhibited around the world, from South Korea to New York City, and have been praised for their unique properties in transforming the way one views a medium that is so often taken for granted.

Through the intricate exploration of fluid forms, Sweeney also explores the weight of paper through scale and installation while skillfully rendering feather-like details to many of his works. His paper artworks are often sculpted without color to further emphasize the medium and nuanced potential of paper folds and their physical relationship to the changing effects of light.

Additional signature paper sculptures by Sweeney include Beta Sheet (2008), Skulls (2013), and Swan III (2021).

Buffalo (n.d.) by Calvin Nicholls

Artist Name Calvin Nicholls (late 20th century)DateUnavailableMediumPaperDimensions (cm)55.8 x 45.7 x 5Where It Is HousedPrivate collection

The paper artworks of Calvin Nicholls will have you fascinated with the remarkable qualities of the Canadian artist’s hands and ability to manipulate the medium. Nicholls’ works are inspired by the natural world and are filled with depth using bas-relief sculpting methods. Buffalo demonstrates Nicholls’ manifestation of a light-hearted conversation illustrated by the swirling effect of the grass.

Nicholls’ incredible use of texture using paper and layering truly evokes the presence of the buffalo. One may question the strength of paper sculptures, but Nicholls’ techniques involve extensive use of adhesives, which reinforce the millions of paper pieces. According to the artist, archival paper with 100% cotton work best for creating sculptures. Adhesives that Nicholls uses include archival neutral pH polyvinyl acetate and methyl cellulose powder. Other famous paper works by Nicholls include Drum Roll (2021), Mountain Gorilla (2021), and Panda Mick (2022).

These incredible paper sculpture artists have truly broken the boundaries of what it means to create art made from paper. From paper statues to paper maquettes, Contemporary artists are always challenging the possibilities of the medium to make the most out of paper and present innovative sculptures that transcend the perceived two-dimensionality of the medium. Other prominent paper artists who you can check out in your spare time include Noriko Ambe, John Baldessari, Tahiti Pehrson, Timothy Hyunsoo Lee, and Richard Deacon.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Is Paper Sculpture?

The practice of producing art made from paper to resemble a three-dimensional form is recognized as paper sculpture. The art form is a versatile medium that enables artists to experiment with texture, form, shape, and design while producing unique works of art.

Who Are the Three Most Famous Paper Sculptors?

The top three famous paper sculptors in the world are recognized as Li Hongbo, Joel Garcia, and Richard Sweeney.

What Is the History of Paper Sculpture?

Paper sculpture has its origins in 17th-century origami art as well as traces of pulp developing processes in China around the 2nd century.

What Is the Difference Between Origami and Paper Sculpture?

The primary difference between the art of paper sculpture and the Japanese art form of origami is that paper sculptures are typically characterized by the use of multiple pieces of paper and vary in size and shape. Origami art, on the other hand, is specific to the Japanese paper folding technique and is usually crafted from a single sheet of paper. Origami art is also created using specific paper called origami paper, which is thinner than the standard types of paper and is designed specifically for origami.

What Techniques Are Used to Create Paper Sculptures?

Techniques that can be used to create sculptural art made from paper include origami paper folding methods and processes such as curling, fringing, molding, embossing, and the use of adhesives to bond paper cut-outs together. These techniques provide depth to the sculpture and can be used to enhance the visual detail of the artwork.